Ric Holland's Blog

Richard Luxton interview


Ric - Welcome Richard to the Art of Making Marks please introduce yourself by telling us who you are and what it is that you do?

Richard - My name is Richard Luxton.  I am a freelance digital photo re-toucher. Primarily I do fashion retouching.  But that probably takes up 85 per cent of my work.  My other clients, other than fashion, are advertising clients and basically anyone who could use my skills.

Ric - And so you use Wacom tablets in your work, how long have you been using Wacom tablets?

Richard - [laughs] I only use one Wacom tablet at a time, but I’ve been using Wacom tablets every since digital imaging reared its head in Australia basically.

Ric - [laughs] In the Jurassic period?

Richard - Yes I go back to the Jurassic period.  The first Wacom tablet I used was with the first computer I used, thinking back on it about 13 – 14 years ago, when Vision Graphics, the company I was working for, bought a computer made by Kodak called the Premier System, which was a closed loop system including a computer, a scanner and a film writer.  It came with a Wacom tablet  which was a bit fatter than this one I’m using now.

Ric - Was it actually branded as Wacom or was it re-branded as Kodak?

Richard - Oh yes.  No, it was branded Wacom.  That’s the first one I’d ever seen.

Ric - How much pressure sensitivity do you think it had?

Richard - It was reasonably good.  The pen wasn’t quite so ergonomically designed as it is now, but there was a reasonable amount of pressure sensitivity way back then. I was never unfortunate enough to have to use a mouse. A mouse to me is a very foreign object! There are one or two things I use a mouse for, usually on the internet at my banking site or something. I use the pen for almost everything else I would say, because I mean how can you draw with a mouse?

Ric - So you basically use your Wacom tablet for almost all your computer usage?

Richard - Yes everything.

Ric - So now Richard, you are a traditionally trained photo/film retoucher, so the introduction to using a computer the first time was using a Wacom tablet. Is that correct?

Richard - Yes.

Ric - Right, so in fact your whole understanding of using a computer from day one is with a Wacom tablet?

Richard - Yes and it was a very smooth transition because right from the start it felt just like drawing. I’m a drawer and so I liked it. It seemed very quick to get used to it. For the first ten minutes or so it seems a bit odd as you’re looking over at the screen and you’re drawing down on the tablet, but very quickly it becomes just like drawing on a piece of paper. You just happen not to be looking at what your hand is doing and see your cursor moving instead.

Ric - What type of tablet are you using now?

Richard - I’m using an Intuos3 6×9 (A4) tablet which matches my Lacie monitor proportionately.

I’ve used much larger ones which could double as surfboards, but this one seems to be absolutely perfect for the size of the screen.  If I was using a larger screen, I’d probably get a larger tablet.

Ric - So you like to use a ‘one to one’tablet to screen scale when working on a graphics tablet?

Richard - Yes, I prefer that.

Ric - And so you can zoom into your image for closer detail.

Richard - Oh God, yes.

Ric - To have a lot of fine control.

Richard - Oh amazingly fine control, and the sensitivity is amazing, you know, you can really touch so lightly and have a very light effect on the image, and vice versa, if you press hard, it happens very quickly and you can get very strong effects – it’s really good.

Ric - Do you customise your settings or just leave them at the default settings?

Richard - Well not necessarily the default settings. I’ve used them in the same way for many years, and so I’m just used to it now.  It’s not quite at default, I’d most likely change a few things, but I’ve got into a way of working that suits my style.

Ric - So would please tell us a bit about your work?

Richard - Well most of it is fashion magazine work.  Occasionally I’ll do work for brochures and things like that, but mostly the fashion magazine work.

Ric - I noticed some images that you were working on when I came in, and there seems to be a lot of work that you have to do on the model’s skin.

Richard - A lot of skin work, yes. [laughs]  One of my main clients, a lady called Corrie, does a lot of beauty as well as straight fashion. The beauty work can be quite time consuming, because it’s often close ups of faces and eyes that need a huge amount of work done.  When you’re looking close up on an eye, you think what can be done on an eye for God’s sake?  It’s just two small things on either side of your face, but you go in close and you’ll see there’s all sorts of blood vessels and discolorations in the white of your eyes. All that’s got to be fixed, and also all around the eyes usually has to be lightened, the eyelashes sometimes have to be separated because you know, they’re clogged up and joined together. Some lashes go off at weird angles, and then you get a little higher up and you find the eyebrows and hairs growing off all over the place and so I neaten it all up.

Ric - And so (it’s) in some cases it’s really re-illustrating the image. You actually draw back in the model’s features?

Richard - It’s not so much drawing back in. I tend to think of it as subtractive than additive.  Generally on first looking at the face of a female model’s skin you would think “Wow, she’s got fantastic skin”.  But when you go in close, it’s just like looking at an alligator handbag. You have to work in close, and by the time you fix up all the little cracks and blemishes, you come back out again and it’s all nice and smooth. 

Ric - There must be a fine line between beautiful and fake?

Richard - Oh yeah, so many re-touchers go way too far – well I think they do anyway.

Ric - So you’ve got to keep some sense of reality?

Richard - Occasionally people want that absolute porcelain look, and it might suit the particular ad or the particular story the photographer is trying to convey, but generally, I don’t like going too far. There are some magazines that I cringe at what they ask me to do, but I do it.  I don’t like it!

Ric - Have you ever come up against a job where you really don’t know how you’re going to achieve what’s been asked of you?

Richard - Funnily enough, almost every job I look at and I go “Oh God, how am I going to do that?”  But as soon as you get started, then oh yeah, it’s starting to happen now and then yeah, that’s working! For me it’s just like doodling.  I slowly work on little areas. It’s a bit like painting or drawing, you just start and then it starts happening and you work and work and work and you know, it’s like a drawing or a painting you just go over bits and over bits until they look right.

Ric - What innovations in your work are due to using a Wacom tablet? I know that’s probably a difficult question considering everything you do is done by using a Wacom tablet, but just in your words?

Richard - I know what you mean.  The thing that is so good about a Wacom tablet – or I should say ‘Wah Com’ tablet, is the fact that it is exactly like a pencil or a pen, or actually whatever you want it to be.  You can adjust it. You can have big brushes or you can have little tight sharp brushes, you can have soft brushes or really fine in focus brushes. It takes a little bit of time to get used to setting them up, but depending on what you’re drawing or what you’re airbrushing or what you’re doing, you can adjust this to be whatever you want it to be, and it’s exactly like it always was with paper. [laughs] Me being nearly 100 now so I’ve been used to pencils and paintbrushes as well, and this is just like it, and so there’s no big transition. Unfortunately or maybe fortunately I’ve never had to use one of those mouse things to draw.  I’ve seen people using them, and think they are amazing – how can you draw with a brick?  I can’t do it.

Ric - [laughs] It’s usually my answer to those people as well.

Richard - I’ve seen people do it and they’re not bad, but I would hate to have had to learn to do it too.

Ric - Some people are very proud of how clever they can be with a mouse, and I say “Well you know, I guess some people can paint with a paintbrush using their mouth to hold it, but it’s kind of better using your hands.”

Richard - Exactly.  So I’ve never had to use that.  Right from the very start, as soon as I came out of the darkroom, I went straight to a Wacom tablet and there was no need for me to learn a new way of drawing, so the innovation all came from Wacom, not from me.

Ric - What applications or combination of applications do you use?

Richard - I virtually only use Photoshop. I used to have to use Quark occasionally, but I haven’t since InDesign came along. I’ve always had InDesign and Illustrator there and some people will give me an Illustrator files to take something from. I know the basics of those programs which I can use.

Ric - So how tightly integrated are Wacom tablets with Photoshop?

Richard - It’s seamless integration.  I can’t imagine anything else. I mean it’s the only way I know of getting from this (Richard points to his head) to that. (pointing to the computer screen).

Ric - Can you talk about some of your current projects.

Richard - This is what you might call a beauty shot.  The next shot is the before.

Ric - Oh yes she is very different.

Richard - I mean you look at the skin, the eyes and the lips, and after it was retouched it went to that, so all the blemishes are gone, the eyes are all cleaned up, a lot of work has gone into the eyes, around the lips, highlights etc. She was very thin and slightly boney here. (pointing to image)

Ric - So of course reality isn’t reality.  Every image that we see most likely goes through a process similar to what you’ve just described?

Richard - Not always.  That was fairly drastic on that particular girl. I mean there’s not so much done on this girl. See the before and after.  See how the eyebrows have been fixed there, under the eyes – not too much. It’s still got all the detail, but before it was a bit shadowy under there and all that stuff going on in the eyes.  We just brightened it up a bit.

Ric - Without giving away your trade secrets Richard to the Photoshop power users, I gather you’ve got some special tricks with channels and masks?

Richard-  I’m not telling you Ric! [laughs]

Ric - Well good then, thank you.

Richard - Oh Photoshop is amazing. You can fix anything really, and obviously channels are just one way to work on the image.

Ric - Yes you can go into each individual colour to edit and retouch.

Richard - Yeah, you can go into each individual colour and change things.

Ric - Also with many channels and layers you can get very lost too…

Richard - Yes, very lost.  A good place for storing masks and things is in channels. There are so many places in Photoshop where you can do different things. It’s not a mystery – I mean there aren’t any real secrets to digital retouching. There were more in the old ‘hand’ retouching days where it was more about the chemical secrets to the dyes and bleaches we used. That knowledge was kept pretty tightly under a retoucher’s belt because you know, you spent years figuring out how to do those things, and you weren’t going to give it away lightly, well at least in the hey day of retouching when the retouchers were treated like gods. I only entered it right at the last minute because I was told “I wouldn’t bother to learn that.  It will take you ten years, and digital will take over in about ten years as well”, but I still had that ten years experience of it. I thought I’m going to get to learn this anyway, and so I got the basics of hand retouching sorted out back then.

Ric - Do you think Photoshop took on a lot of that knowledge through its early development, thinking of those early techniques you talk about somehow being encapsulated in the application or is it more about translating the traditional techniques into a new digital process?

Richard - I think Photoshop came from the dark room originally, but it’s been around for so long now that you can barely see the links.  The very first software that came with that Kodak Premier Computer system was very simple and obviously made for someone who’d come from the ‘dark room’ environment.  All increments were designed to be in terms of lenses, f stops, film stocks so everything had photographic terms and it was quite intuitive. It had to be because the day we got that computer system was also the same day that our masking dark rooms got knocked down, so we had no choice.  We had a one week course with a woman who came out from Kodak in America to show us how to use the computer, and I had never used a computer before that. There were a lot of people around with PCs and Macs but they weren’t up to high end retouching, at least not that I knew of anyway.  And so we had a week to learn how to use it and at the end of that week there were jobs to do, we had to start and get them finished, and it was scary.

Ric - Was the Kodak Premier System a multi-million dollar computer?

Richard - I wouldn’t say multi-million dollar.  I think it was fairly close to a million dollars and it was very good, but nowhere near as sophisticated as Photoshop is today. Though we were working on 200 megabyte files all the time because that’s what you need because everybody still wanted transparencies to look at as the benchmark. That’s what had been used forever, so you had to do the retouching digitally and then output it to transparency film, and to output a 10×8 transparency, you need just over 200 megabytes, so the computer was designed to work on 200 megabyte files all the time.

Ric - And so it took a little while for the PC platform to catch up. So what happened in the gap in between?

Richard - Well it was making money for the company I worked for, Vision Graphics, for probably eight or nine years before Mac based systems caught up. We actually bought a Mac when we first got the Premier as well, but hardly ever used it. We’d heard in America people were using Macs for odd things like, putting noise into skies or something, which we never did because we didn’t know anything about Macs and how to use them.  But about five years on, after getting that Premier, I think about around Photoshop version 4 it started to be quite useful. Then over the next four or five years, the power of Mac based systems started accelerating and after about eight or nine years of having the Premier, a Mac could do everything it could do.

Ric - Yes PC’s and Mac systems in general.

Richard - Yeah.

Ric - Though Mac obviously was the path back then.

Richard - Mac was the tool that designers and photographers mainly preferred.

Ric - And you’re even still using a Mac?

Richard - Yes I’m still using a Mac.  The new Macs now have got the Intel chip and so you can run PC software on them as well. There isn’t anymore such a big gap between Mac and PC as there was over the last 10 to 15 years. Mac systems finally caught up with the cumbersome old Premier, and soon overtook it and they were so much cheaper.

Ric - So now Richard if you could say something to the development guys at Wacom about what you might want in the way of future innovations, what might that be?

Richard - Well I’m very happy with what they’ve got at the moment, but I tell you, there’s that big fat pen that I keep seeing advertised, you know, sort of more for the airbrush users.  I don’t know who uses those? I’ve seen a pen with a huge great lump on the end.  I’ve often wondered what that was.

Ric - That’s our airbrush pen.

Richard - What is the difference with that pen to the standard pen?

Ric - It’s got a control wheel, so it gives you the feel of an airbrush, you pull back on the wheel the way traditionally a brush widens and closes its spray when you pull back on the trigger. Pulling back on the wheel gives you a similar feel to using a traditional airbrush.

Richard - I must try one of those one day.

Ric - So working with the Intuos tablet rather than working on the screen of a Cintq is still your preferred method of working? Some people find the hand-eye coordination required is difficult for them.

Richard - Really?  Some people find that difficult?

Ric Yes, some people do!  Mostly people who have never used a tablet before.

Richard - Well initially, for the first hour or two maybe it’s a little strange.

Ric - That’s right.  It’s just a bit like using a mouse for the first time, just getting the feel of it.

Richard - Well I’ve used a mouse probably eight times and I’ve never got used to it.

Ric - Did you know that Wacom pressure sensitive technology is in most Tablet PCs our Screen tablets and of course the Cintiq range.

Richard - Yes, I’ve looked at those and I’d love to muck about with something like that.  It looks great.  I guess you’re a little bit closer to the image I suppose. I’ve got used to this way of working though I can imagine for a person coming to a Wacom for the first time would find it even easier to get used to if you were actually drawing on the image on the screen as it were. For retouching photos I feel that your hand is kind of in the way.

Ric - Well yes that is a common first reaction from seasoned tablet users. Photographic re-touchers tend to prefer to be able to see the whole screen uninterrupted, but then for a designer or an illustrator, being able to work with a tablet is like using a pen on paper. It allows for a more fluid and expressive hand motion.

Richard - Yeah, I can’t see that – having got used to this way of working, I don’t need to change, but I can see how someone who is new to it might. Why bother to go here, (points to tablet) when you can just go straight there? (points to screen) 

Ric - Richard, thank you very much for your time today participating in the Art of Making Marks and showing us your very special brand of digital photographic retouching work.

Richard Thank you.